Welcome to what December should feel like in the NFL.
The Carolina Panthers took a year-long hiatus from this feeling in 2016, when they went 6-10 and spent a long December trying to climb a mountain that was simply not going to get climbed.
But at 8-3, the Panthers find themselves at base camp and pretty well acclimated already for the long trek ahead. Even a loss against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday wouldn’t be devastating to their playoff hopes – although it would be to their chance of winning the NFC South.
Much like 2013-15, December should be a fun month if you are a Panthers fan.
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Five games. Five quality opponents. And all of it will mean something.
▪ The Panthers will face a 38-year-old quarterback for the second time in a row Sunday. They allowed 307 passing yards to Josh McCown in their victory last week, and they didn’t do too well against Drew Brees the first time around this season, either, in New Orleans’ 34-13 walloping of Carolina in Charlotte. Brees is the oldest player on the Saints roster.
▪ While it seems to me in an anecdotal way that the Mercedes-Benz Superdome is one of the most difficult places to play in the league, in fact Carolina has historically been pretty good there. The Panthers are 10-10 all-time in the Superdome.
▪ Las Vegas oddsmakers have Saints running back Alvin Kamara listed as the favorite to win the NFL’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award – an award Deshaun Watson would have been a shoo-in for had he not gotten hurt. Christian McCaffrey is also still in the running, but he would need a very big game Sunday while Kamara got stuffed by the Panthers defense to realistically make up much ground.
▪ Prediction time. I have been on a small winning streak to get to 7-4 while picking Carolina games but have really struggled with what to predict this week.
I like to think my radar for how the Panthers will do each Sunday is decently accurate. But it goes haywire many times when the team plays New Orleans – most recently in Week 3 this season. What I often believe will happen? It simply doesn’t happen.
So this time, since I mostly believe the Saints are too good in the Superdome for Carolina to handle, I’m going against my gut.
This used to work with me at a fork on a backroad when I was lost somewhere. My sense of direction was so bad in the pre-GPS days that choosing the opposite of my instinctual first guess was a smart option.
All that is to say I’m choosing Cam Newton and company to pull off the upset. My pick: Carolina 24, New Orleans 23.
Fowler: 704-358-5140; Twitter: @scott_fowler